Written by Daniel Latto in Latest News

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  • TED: Peter Doolittle: How your “working memory” makes sense of the world – Peter Doolittle (2013)
December 17, 2013

So yesterday, I was out in the street in front of this building, and I was walking down the sidewalk, and I had company, several of us, and we were all abiding by the rules of walking down sidewalks. We’re not talking each other. We’re facing forward. We’re moving. When the person in front of me slows down. And so I’m watching him, and he slows down, and finally he stops. Well, that wasn’t fast enough for me, so I put on my turn signal, and I walked around him, and as I walked, I looked to see what he was doing, and he was doing this. He was texting, and he couldn’t text and walk at the same time. Now we could approach this from a working memory perspective or from a multitasking perspective. We’re going to do working memory today.

Now, working memory is that part of our consciousness that we are aware of at any given time of day. You’re going it right now. It’s not something we can turn off. If you turn it off, that’s called a coma, okay? So right now, you’re doing just fine.

Now working memory has four basic components. It allows us to store some immediate experiences and a little bit of knowledge. It allows us to reach back into our long-term memory and pull some of that in as we need it, mixes it, processes it in light of whatever our current goal is. Now the current goal isn’t something like, I want to be president or the best surfer in the world. It’s more mundane. I’d like that cookie, or I need to figure out how to get into my hotel room. Now working memory capacity is our ability to leverage that, our ability to take what we know and what we can hang onto and leverage it in ways that allow us to satisfy our current goal.

Now working memory capacity has a fairly long history, and it’s associated with a lot of positive effects. People with high working memory capacity tend to be good storytellers. They tend to solve and do well on standardized tests, however important that is. They’re able to have high levels of writing ability. They’re also able to reason at high levels.

So what we’re going to do here is play a little bit with some of that. So I’m going to ask you to perform a couple tasks, and we’re going to take your working memory out for a ride. You up for that? Okay.

I’m going to give you five words, and I just want you to hang on to them. Don’t write them down. Just hang on to them. Five words. While you’re hanging on to them, I’m going to ask you to answer three questions. I want to see what happens with those words. So here’s the words: tree, highway, mirror, Saturn and electrode. So far so good? Okay. What I want you to do is I want you to tell me what the answer is to 23 times eight. Just shout it out. (Mumbling) (Laughter) In fact it’s — (Mumbling) — exactly. (Laughter) All right. I want you to take out your left hand and I want you to go, “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10.” It’s a neurological test, just in case you were wondering. All right, now what I want you to do is to recite the last five letters of the English alphabet backwards. You should have started with Z. (Laughter)

All right. How many people here are still pretty sure you’ve got all five words? Okay. Typically we end up with about less than half, right, which is normal. There will be a range. Some people can hang on to five. Some people can hang on to 10. Some will be down to two or three.

What we know is this is really important to the way we function, right? And it’s going to be really important here at TED because you’re going to be exposed to so many different ideas.

Now the problem that we have is that life comes at us, and it comes at us very quickly, and what we need to do is to take that amorphous flow of experience and somehow extract meaning from it with a working memory that’s about the size of a pea. Now don’t get me wrong, working memory is awesome. Working memory allows us to investigate our current experience as we move forward. It allows us to make sense of the world around us. But it does have certain limits.

Now working memory is great for allowing us to communicate. We can have a conversation, and I can build a narrative around that so I know where we’ve been and where we’re going and how to contribute to this conversation. It allows us to problem-solve, critical think. We can be in the middle of a meeting, listen to somebody’s presentation, evaluate it, decide whether or not we like it, ask follow-up questions. All of that occurs within working memory. It also allows us to go to the store and allows us to get milk and eggs and cheese when what we’re really looking for is Red Bull and bacon. (Laughter) Gotta make sure we’re getting what we’re looking for. Now, a central issue with working memory is that it’s limited. It’s limited in capacity, limited in duration, limited in focus. We tend to remember about four things. Okay? It used to be seven, but with functional MRIs, apparently it’s four, and we were overachieving. Now we can remember those four things for about 10 to 20 seconds unless we do something with it, unless we process it, unless we apply it to something, unless we talk to somebody about it.

When we think about working memory, we have to realize that this limited capacity has lots of different impacts on us. Have you ever walked from one room to another and then forgotten why you’re there? You do know the solution to that, right? You go back to that original room. (Laughter) Have you ever forgotten your keys? You ever forgotten your car? You ever forgotten your kids? Have you ever been involved in a conversation, and you realize that the conversation to your left is actually more interesting? (Laughter) So you’re nodding and you’re smiling, but you’re really paying attention to this one over here, until you hear that last word go up, and you realize, you’ve been asked a question. (Laughter) And you’re really hoping the answer is no, because that’s what you’re about to say. All of that talks about working memory, what we can do and what we can’t do. We need to realize that working memory has a limited capacity, and that working memory capacity itself is how we negotiate that. We negotiate that through strategies.

So what I want to do is talk a little bit about a couple of strategies here, and these will be really important because you are now in an information target-rich environment for the next several days. Now the first part of this that we need to think about and we need to process our existence, our life, immediately and repeatedly. We need to process what’s going on the moment it happens, not 10 minutes later, not a week later, at the moment. So we need to think about, well, do I agree with him? What’s missing? What would I like to know? Do I agree with the assumptions? How can I apply this in my life? It’s a way of processing what’s going on so that we can use it later. Now we also need to repeat it. We need to practice. So we need to think about it here. In between, we want to talk to people about it. We’re going to write it down, and when you get home, pull out those notes and think about them and end up practicing over time. Practice for some reason became a very negative thing. It’s very positive.

The next thing is, we need to think elaboratively and we need to think illustratively. Oftentimes, we think that we have to relate new knowledge to prior knowledge. What we want to do is spin that around. We want to take all of our existence and wrap it around that new knowledge and make all of these connections and it becomes more meaningful. We also want to use imagery. We are built for images. We need to take advantage of that. Think about things in images, write things down that way. If you read a book, pull things up. I just got through reading “The Great Gatsby,” and I have a perfect idea of what he looks like in my head, so my own version.

The last one is organization and support. We are meaning-making machines. It’s what we do. We try to make meaning out of everything that happens to us. Organization helps, so we need to structure what we’re doing in ways that make sense. If we are providing knowledge and experience, we need to structure that.

And the last one is support. We all started as novices. Everything we do is an approximation of sophistication. We should expect it to change over time. We have to support that. The support may come in asking people questions, giving them a sheet of paper that has an organizational chart on it or has some guiding images, but we need to support it.

Now, the final piece of this, the take-home message from a working memory capacity standpoint is this: what we process, we learn. If we’re not processing life, we’re not living it. Live life. Thank you.


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